The next morning, newspapers reported on model Gisele Bündchen or Brad Pitt. Snowden’s interview, enthusiastically celebrated by his team, only had six million viewers. Has the US lost interest?
A visit to the New York office of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), one of the oldest and largest human rights organisations in the world and an institution in the US. Ben Wizner, 42, sits in a small room with the door always open, the man with the probably most coveted mandate in the world. Before this, he defended Guantanamo inmates and whistleblower Chelsea Manning. His work is financed by donations.
Wizner only wears a suit on TV or in court. His corduroy trousers hang rather low, his shirt is untucked. There are no stacks of papers covering his dark desk as is common with most lawyers. Instead, there are three charming pot plants and two plastic skulls that dance at the push of a button. Wizner bought them once for a bit of Halloween fun.
Mr Wizner, what do you think is going to happen to your client?
Wizner isn’t a zealot, an ideologist or a dreamer – eventhough you could misinterpret his quiet, singing voice for one. The arguments he uses to attack his opponents are often rhethorical questions. That is why he answers like this: “You should better pose this question to the US government. What solution does it want? Would it rather Snowden remained in Russia? Is this the best solution for our ‘national security’? Or could it find a way to bring Snowden back home, without excessive punishment, so that he can contribute to the necessary reforms?”
Is he negotiating with the US government about this? Wizner doesn’t answer this question,but says that amnesty isn’t a dirty word and that he wishes that they could at least build a bridge for Snowden into a third country.
“The US has a problem,” he says. “If they are prosecuting him here, the public would fight back worldwide.”And, he adds: “That would be as if you’d prosecute Mandela. Well, almost,” he laughs. In any case, Snowden should be able to return with dignity. But why would any country put up with a traitor? Maybe because the people want that, says Wizner. Surveys in Germany show that the large majority would receive Snowden there. Americans are still undecided.
Have Snowden’s revelations damaged individualss as his opponents claim? “So far,” says Wizner, pacey and quiet as always, with his glance now scurrying over a screen directly in front of him, “no one has shown such direct damage.” It isn’t so easy to talk to Wizner these days. In front of him is the device that keeps him in contact with Snowden. He better not explain exactly how it works, he says. The chat is encrypted. When a message arrives from Snowden, Wizner interrupts his conversation, his hands fly over the keyboard, he presses send, waits, and then often laughs. Edward Snowden is funny.
Snowden has adapted his hours to Wizner’s working day. They chat in the deep Moscow night. “I’m his gatekeeper,” he says. Wizner coordinates which of his many lawyers – for example, Plato Cacheris the criminal lawyer in Washington, or his Berlin colleague Wolfgang Kaleck – visit him when, and which journalists or politicians can meet him. He interrupts his answer again. Kaleck, with whom Wizner worked on the CIA-kidnapped Khaled El Masri case, urgently needs a few statements from Snowden. Wizner sends the emails via encrypted chat. Snowden and Kaleck discuss their strategy for Germany – it is about a possible testimony at the German parliamentary investigation committee. It is still not clear whether it will travel to him in Moscow or whether Snowden is allowed to come to Germany. Wizner doesn’t comment on the European policy, he leaves this up to Kaleck. They have divided up their tasks among themselves like a group of medical consultants.
Wizner made contact with Snowden through Laura Poitras. Snowden had already anonymously contacted the journalist half a year before his famous video from his Hongkong hotel room was made public. Poitras asked her old friend for his opinion. Wizner joined team Snowden and became his closest confidant.
Hundreds of chat hours took place prior to their first meeting in Moscow. “Ed has grown up with the internet, he feels very comfortable with it,” says Wizner who had to learn how to chat first. When they finally met in January 2014, they interacted with the familiarity of old friends.
Although they come from very different backgrounds: Edward Snowden was born in 1983 in North Carolina. His father works for the coast guard, his mother is an employee at the district court. As a child, Snowden liked Japanese computer games, he later quit school, dropped out of the IT course at college, and wasn’t interested in university. He posted arrogant comments in online forums, enlisted voluntarily to join the army to fight in Iraq and free the world from a dictator. He broke both legs in training, became a security guard for the NSA and later a security analyst because of his computer expertise – and, then, later still a whistleblower. A winding road.
By contrast, Ben Wizner was always sure that he would one day work in the public interest. He was born in 1971 in New Haven, Connecticut, grew up on the campus of the elite university Yale, his father a professor of law, his mother dean. Wizner studied literature at Harvard – he recently suggested that Snowden read Checkhov – and later law in New York. Then he joined the human rights organisation ACLU. With the natural eloquence of a son of intellectuals, Wizner now talks about its beginnings. The organisation, founded in 1920, didn’t have a particular political agenda, it only defended the constitution.
It represented, for example, a teacher who was told by a religious state not to teach the theory of evolution. Later it fought for the rights of neo-Nazis to march through a neighborhood where many Holocaust survivors lived. When the Nazis were demonstrating, the same lawyers who made this possible also stood in the streets holding up protest posters. Today, the ACLU is so powerful that it resides in an enormous office building in Wall Street, has nearly 1000 employees in offices all over the country and has about half a million members. Some deal with the right to abortion, others fight against the death sentence.